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Form is Insight: the project

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — about the (not yet titled) book (or post-book project) i seem to be writing, which offers a grand slam intro to an array of box-free contemplative and artistic approaches to creative thinking, and hence opens fresh angles on intelligence ]

One thing I can promise: whatever this project turns out to be, it won’t be predictable.

credit for this incredible image: Roger Dean


This project won’t take you over familiar territory, congratulating you on holding the same opinions as the author and adding in enough choice details to keep you interested. I’m not aiming to teach you the same thing you already know, only better, more interestingly, more precisely, or in greater detail. I’m aiming to question you, challenge you, and give you a whole new range of optics through which to view the world.


So, here we go.

I think I am finally at the point where the book (or whatever it is) I’ve been gathering inside me all these years is ready to be written. Some of it has already emerged in earlier posts here on Zenpundit — you don’t known and couldn’t count how many thanks, Mark — and this is certainly where I’ve been developing the style of integrated visuals and verbals that gives the project its flavor — so I’d also like to use my posts here to discuss the thing with you as I go along.

The project is about intelligence in the widest sense, including heart and mind, and with particular focus on creativity. I’m addressing this from two standpoints that mesh together well, and I’m addressing it to two audiences that I believe also mesh together well.

The standpoints are (i) meditation and (ii) the arts, and the audiences are (i) the “intelligence community” and (ii) bright people in general.

I believe that meditation cultivates a spacious mind-set in which we can hold multiple concerns in mind at the same time – the opposing needs of different people, stakeholders, sections of society, the environment, etc – thus seeing things from multiple angles and in balancing & thus balanced ways. And I think the arts serve as the primary means for expressing these balances with all their nuances and shadings, and that techniques from within the arts such as polyphony, chiaroscuro, formal constraint and pattern can teach us to shape multi-faceted insights like these into rich and complex understandings – complex patterns that respond to complex situations. I’ll go into all this in detail as we move along, with examples.

I also believe that this kind of creatively patterned insight — embodying artistic methodology in the context of complex problems with a “fresh” and open mind – will be of interest beyond the intelligence agencies and policy-makers, to business people, artists, and also — importantly — the bright general public, which I take to be a far larger subset of the population than we commonly think, and always eager for reading that doesn’t talk down to them but appreciates their own intelligence and good will.

For now let me just say that I’m very excited, because this seems (at last) to be a project that ties together my game-work with Sembl, the think-tank side of me which has been monitoring religious violence, jihad and terror and working towards nuance, understanding and peace these last dozen years — and my sense of creativity as a writer and poet.

Ripeness is all: I suspect the time for this venture has arrived.


Here’s the single page overview I’ve written, with a working title:

Intelligence is Zen: understanding our complex world with koans in mind

Just a few days ago, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, referenced Pirsig‘s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as key to the Intelligence Community’s work in understanding and adapting to the many, varied, intersecting problems we face in the world today. As I noted, Clapper was focused a bit more on the biker wisdom than the Zen to be found in Pirsig’s book, but he does raise a question I’ve been addressing for some years now:

What does the contemplative mind have to offer in terms of understanding a complex world?

To my mind, the creativity which is all the buzz of the business world, aimed at solving what are called “wicked problems” — problems that feature multiple stakeholders with multiple aims and objectives, aims and objectives which themselves shift over time so the problems are “never the same river twice” – requires a major mental and emotional shift. Reverie and meditation free us up to make the shift: the shift itself is poorly understood.

Our present, mostly linear way of thinking favors either/or side-taking, dubious cause-and-effect expectations which fail to take complex feedback loops into account, followed all too often by a rush to judgment. We need a whole new – old, even ancient – way of thinking.

Our problems are complex because they overlap, they ripple through one another. In Buddhist terms, they are “interdependently arising.” Not surprisingly, the way of thinking that is required to gain a deeper insight into “interdependently arising” problems can be found in explicit form in such contemplative traditions as Madhyamika & Zen, Taoism, Sufism, and their Abrahamic contemplative analogs. At the heart of these systems is fresh thinking – thought refreshed by quiet.

Furthermore, the shaping of insights in an open field of thought is something the world’s artistic traditions have long dealt with, and there are schools of insight not just available but recorded in exquisite detail in the world’s traditions of poetry, music, painting, theater, film… in patterns that are found in nature, in culture, and in the very turbulence we now must learn to flow with.

The project therefore takes a meditation-influenced approach to intelligence, both in the sense in which Clapper would use the word, relating to the intelligence analysis which develops and influences our decision-makers’ understanding of what’s needed, and in the more general sense of those capable folk with bright minds, keen insights, sharp instincts, warm hearts.

I’ll propose a series of ways of looking differently – with application for anyone, whether artist, intel analyst, businessman, policy-maker, or lover – that cut to the essence of creativity: lateral, analogical, holistic thinking, witnessing pattern beneath the surface of things. My examples will be mainly drawn from terrorism, which I have been monitoring for a dozen years: my style is that of a poet and an eccentric Englishman.

My subtext, my subliminal message, will be contemplation and artistry as profound common sense.

Introducing myself to ETHOS

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — games and complexity, Joseph Kony, think tanks, need for a new analytic institution ]

I just introduced myself to the Ethos Network — their motto: Collaboration, Trust, Moderation — a group of mainly UK-based mil, biz & creativ types a good friend pointed me to, partly responding to an earlier conversation about Kony on their platform, partly laying out my own interests…

And with a suggestion thrown in there that we could really use a new analytic setup of some sort, a point I’ll return to.

Here, then, is my introduction as posted there:



A few words of introduction are probably in order, before I dive in…

You might say I live at the intersection of complexity and games, and work at the intersection of religion and violence.


My interest in complexity comes from a sense that the problems facing us contains many diverse and conflicting tensions to be resolved in some sort of continuous, shifting balance, and that we as humans face them with a complexity of our own, the complexity of our individual tensions, preferences, desires, interrests, hopes, fears, assumptions, resistances and so forth.  

So both within each one of us, and in groups, we have a situation where many points of view, many voices should if possible be heard, taken into account, adjusted for.

As social beings, we need to let the voices of other stakeholders, other constituencies, other points of view be heard, so that we can move towards win-win balances — I won’t call them solutions — wherever possible.

As humans, we need to let some of our own quieter, slower, deeper voices emerge — and that’s the purpose of inward listening, meditation, taking a break, the Sabbath, sleeping on it, relaxing, reverie — to bring out some of the voices that add insight, to give the aha! time to develop and space to show itself…

And in both cases, it’s the voices that go unheard, the parts of the web of tension unattended to, which can come back and bite us.

So… two things.  

One:  I am interested in developing ways to map conversations that are many voiced — literally “polyphonic” — such that, as with the music of Bach and Handel (and hey, Dylan and the Band), multiple voices can be heard at once, held in a shifting tension, with conflict arising and moving into resolution as they do when Glenn Gould plays Bach or Eric Clapton jams with Billy Preston…  I have games I’ve designed that do this…

Two: I am interested in what we’re not paying attention to, to our blind spots, to the undertows of our own and other cultures, to the stuff we easily dismiss.

Which brings me to…


I am specifically interested in the contribution of religion, of religious emotion, to contemporary violence.

Religious violence is obviously not the only aspect of violence — but materiel is easier to quantify than morale, and all too often we miss religious signals in others (and in those on our own side) which turn out to have been powerful drivers of conflict.

Joseph Kony is the example of “religious violence” that I’ve seen mentioned here, and given my interest in jihad — I’d been tracking jihadist groups since before the turn of the millennium — he popped up on my screen and claimed some real estate in my attention in May 2005, when I downloaded DFID Media Fellow Maya Deighton’s report in the then-DFID journal, Developments, in which she wrote:

The rebels’ leader is a religious fanatic called Joseph Kony, who hides out for most of the time in southern Sudan.

Kony manages to combine a heady blend of occultism, born-again Christianity, and most recently, a much-proclaimed conversion to Islam, with his campaign of terror and child abduction.

At about the same time, I dowloaded a Chalcedon Foundation file containing Lee Duigon’s piece, “Uganda’s War with ‘the Devil’” — Chalcedon is the late “dominionist” theologian Roussas John Rushdoony’s outfit, and preaches the imposition of the full Old Testament law of Moses, stoning of adulterers included, in the United States (and ultimately the world) — hence my interest.

In any case, it would have been Kony’s “much-proclaimed conversion to Islam” that likely caught my interest in Deighton’s article, and it may well have been Duignon’s piece that first brought Kony to my attention. 

I have tried to keep a wary eye out for news of Kony and the LRA ever since, and for my own purposes, the most informative materials that I have run across in the interim are the notes taken by LTC Richard Skow, published by the New York Times in December 2010.

I have blogged at least twice on Kony, once after Rush Limbaugh, an American media presence on the right, described Kony and the LRA approvingly as “Christians … fighting the Muslims”, and the other time to note (among other things) Kony’s connection with Alice Lakwena.

But Kony’s not the point, and indeed Kony’s wider context, with its multiple drivers in terms of resources, warlords, moral issues, the whole shebang, isn’t the point either.

The point is that I work a seam that’s very little noticed by western analysts, and that runs through the heart of pretty much every insurgency and terrorist movement in recent memory.

The LTTE, for what it’s worth, included.


Al-Qaida’s the prime example of course — but when Omam Hammami’s made his video presentation just last week, how many people noticed that he defined jihad as an act of worship?  And who had an inkling of what that meant?

That was the topic of my most recent blog-post on Zenpundit, but it’s just the most recent instance of a trend that’s both significant and significantly under-appreciated.  It’s in one of our blind spots.

There are times when I’m hugely thankful for the work of people like Nelly Lahoud at the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point — her preliminary report on the “history of jihad” written by bin Laden’s personal secretary came out today — or Will McCants at the Center for Naval Analyses.  But there are other times when I’m equally frustrated, knowing how many bright scholarly voices with valuable insights to offer go unheard.

The think tanks are pretty much all heavily politicized: twitter and blogs are the go to places to keep up with cutting edge thinking — and still, just today, a rising star like Aaron Zelin can tweet about another, in this case Gregory Johnsen:

Is it me or has  predicted everything re: AQAP/Yemen/US policy the past 4-5 yrs? Yet no1 in gov is listening to him. Stupid.

— and pretty much everyone who knows about Yemen agrees…  

This, too, while hugely knowledgeable people like JM Berger of Intelwire are in all likelihood too independent-minded and truth-driven to fit into one of those politicized tanks!  A place for bright, oddball, curious analysts to work without the pressures of group think or authority is very much needed.

But I rant!  And to get back to my own area of special interest – who’s paying attention to the Khorasan motif, to the idea that Afghanistan is where the Mahdi’s army will come from, to the significance of black flags (sometimes Mahdist signals, sometimes “just a cigar”), to the end game in Jerusalem — and for that matter to the notion, likewise found in hadith and widely proclaimed on populist Pakistani videos, that there’s a prong of attack — the Ghazwah-e-Hind — that sweeps from Pakistan down into India, until the victorious flag of Pakistan flies over the Red Fort?


Well, I’ve pointed you towards my own areas of interest, and I do want to indicate that they are extremely focused — that in my view they constitute one important and often overlooked strand in a much larger weave, a strand that needs to be braided along with many others into a larger picture that I make no claim to see.

I am frankly ignorant about what doesn’t interest me, and frankly a very quick study in what piques my curiosity.  And I learn — and forget — more with each passing day.

Any place where Oink’s friends gather grabs my attention. I already see a number of friends here, Greg Esau, Richard Hodkinson, Peter Rothman, John  Kellden, Bryan Alexander, Gregory McNamee… 


How can I be of service?


So that’s what I wrote for Ethos — and one of my analytic buddies already sent me a comment:

There is def a vacuum that needs to be filled that intersects relevant research with a level of independence for writers. Something between academia and a think tank.

I think that’s an important issue — but it shouldn’t remain at the issue level, it should be acted on.

Any ideas about that?

Announcement: “Legacies of the Manhattan Project” May 12-13

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

From blogfriend Cheryl Rofer as well as Molly Cernicek and Susan Voss at Nuclear Diner, – an event for those interested in nuclear weapons, science, Cold War diplomatic history, national security, strategic theory and American strategists:

Nuclear Diner Teams With Santa Fe Institute To Bring You Legacies of the Manhattan Project 

Next weekend, May 12-13, at the Santa Fe Institute, a hand-picked group of physicists, historians, social scientists, systems theorists, and writers will examine the long-term legacies of the Manhattan Project in a timely discussion of an important event in world history that still influences science and society today. Harold Agnew, who was part of the historic effort to develop the first atomic bomb, will participate in the discussion.

SFI is collaborating with the Nuclear Diner to bring the discussion to you live on Twitter. You can participate before, during, and after by searching for the hashtag #bomblegacy or following @nucleardiner. Before the event, you can also leave questions at Nuclear Diner and the Facebook event page. If you “like” the Facebook page, you will get updates throughout the week and continuing information after the workshop.

The group will discuss new information, review original records, and mine the memories of project participants to present a case study in conflict from an important period in scientific history.

More about the Santa Fe Institute working group, including biographies of the participants and discussion topics, here.

Many of SFI’s founders were senior fellows at Los Alamos National Laboratory. As the Institute has emerged as a leader in complexity science, particularly in working toward a theory of conflict in human and animal societies, the Manhattan Project has become an important case study for understanding conflict. The project’s history also illustrates the occasional tension between pure theoretical research and applied science.

Photo: Harold Agnew holding the core of the Nagasaki bomb.

An excellent opportunity for students, grad students, historians and practitioners in various fields to participate here via twitter.

2012 USAWC Strategy Conference on Youtube Part I.

Friday, April 20th, 2012

2012 US Army War College Strategy Conference is under way. Fortunately, the major events are being videotaped and uploaded to Youtube.

Keynote address by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage:

3% of human brains pop, fizzle and #FAIL in any kind of heat

Friday, October 14th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron – Occupy movement, banks and rumors of banks, date setting, apocalyptic, and just a hint of Y2K ]



I’ve said it before, I think: we’re witnessing Y2K: the Expectation in slo-mo.


Now it’s time for banks and rumors of banks to run up the flagpole once again.  As I say in the title of this post, there’s a certain percentage of human brains that simply can’t take the heat, and should stay out of the kitchen. Perhaps I’m being generous in my estimate of the percentage…

So here are three dates to mark on your calendar: October 15th, which is tomorrow at the time of writing, October 21st, coming up shortly, and October 31st, if we live to see the day…

Let’s take them in reverse order:


The October 31st option lacks intelligence, in my not always humble opinion, for two reasons: first, because it’s all a bit like yelling fire in a cinema for the deaf when you don’t know sign language — almost no-one will pay enough attention to take the action you’re recommending — and second, because even if you want to see a significant change away from the ways in which money can buy influence at the moment, the idea of crashing the banks as a means to that end will only turn people away from the larger movement into which you’ve somehow inserted yourself.

Informing politicians that the more “bought and paid for” money they get, the fewer voters will vote for them is one thing. Creating a sustainable parallel system that could mitigate crises, ensuring local food distribution in the event of a disruption of the trucking industry for instance, is another, in much the same spirit.  But crashing the world economic system isn’t even a thing — it’s demented.

So October 31st is a non-starter: pop, fizzle and #FAIL.

Which is lucky, because according to Harold Camping, whose one hundred million dollar campaign to alert us all that the world would end earlier this year didn’t manage to buy God’s decision-making process, there won’t be anyone, anywhere, after October 21st — let alone any banks to withdraw funds from.

No doubt, like Camping’s previous predictions, this one too will fizzle and #FAIL

I wouldn’t care to guess what percentage of my 3% of human brains unable to take the heat will be following Camping at this point, or what percentage the bank crasher will claim, but there’s still room on my dance card for 2012, and this won’t be the last we hear of such ideas.


Which leaves us with tomorrow, a day very much like yesterday… which it will soon turn into?


This one’s interesting because although it has a date certain — one, mark you, that conflicts with the October 31st idea — the event itself doesn’t appear to be scripted [see video].

So who knows?  The suspense is killing me — but it won’t be for long.


Y2K had its fair share of apocalyptic expectations, threatened SCADA failures, worries about supply chains, bank runs and the like, and I’ve suggested [more than once] that we could really use a decent map of our critical dependencies — one that includes our human capacities for fear, fury, obstructionism, fatalism, indecision, generosity, competition and cooperation…

Time for an eTank — or an  iTank, or a G+Tank — eh?

Come now, let us reason together..

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